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South Asia: Plans Gaining Ground For Tsunami Warning System

Plans are gaining momentum for a global early warning system to avert another tragedy on the scale of the Asian tsunami disaster. The issue is under discussion at a meeting of the world's small islands in the Mauritius Islands. UNESCO, the UN education and scientific agency, will take the lead in coordinating the effort. UNESCO helped set up an early warning system in the Pacific in 1968. The agency says it is ready to put its experience and expertise to work for a global system.

Prague, 12 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- International officials are calling for the implementation of a global early warning system to prevent catastrophes such as the 26 December 2004 Asian tsunami.

The tsunami struck eight Indian Ocean countries with virtually no warning, causing the deaths of some 165,000 people. The tragedy has pushed the warning-system issue to the top of the agenda at a United Nations conference of the world's small islands currently underway in Mauritius.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who is attending the week-long meeting, was one of the first officials to call for such a system in the wake of the cataclysm.

Speaking on 10 January at the end of a tour of the tsunami-struck region, Annan said the worst affected countries are demanding a warning system.

"I think the early warning system and prevention has now moved to the center stage. It was very much a part of the discussion in Indonesia and, in fact, the countries in that region [are] demanding that we establish a tsunami warning system and strengthen the existing earthquake and other warning systems," Annan said.

Prior to the tsunami, UNESCO had called for expanding the Pacific warning system to the Indian and Southwest Pacific oceans and the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas. But last month's tragedy has given the idea new impetus.

Julien Barbiere, of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanic Commission, spoke to RFE/RL from Mauritius. He said the formation of the new global system will be based on UNESCO's past experience.

"This [idea] is based on our experience in the Pacific region, where we've been running an early warning system for the last 40 years with most of the countries of the region. So the idea that we are discussing here in Mauritius now -- but also in other forums, and in particular next week in Japan at the Kobe conference on disasters -- the idea is to discuss how we can transfer the existing system in the Pacific into the Indian Ocean region [as well]," Barbiere said.

UNESCO chief Koichiro Matsuura is also attending the conference in Mauritius. He has warned that any global system should go "far beyond the installation of seismic equipment to measure and pinpoint earthquakes."

On 26 December, monitoring institutes knew immediately a huge earthquake had taken place. But in the absence of a warning system, they were unable to relay the information to countries in the Indian Ocean region.

Barbiere told RFE/RL that the future warning system must span the globe in order to be able to limit the loss of life everywhere in the world.

"In the next three months, UNESCO, together with the World Meteorological Organization, is deploying a technical plan for establishing this system. The idea is that we want a global warning system, not just for the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, but also for other regions of the world, because tsunamis can happen in other parts [of the world], in particular in the Caribbean but also in the Mediterranean Sea," Barbiere said.

The abundant aid donations that have poured into the region following the tsunami may help offset the costs of the warning system.

Japan today announced that $4 million out of more than $500 million in aid already pledged by Tokyo will be used to help build the system.

Barbiere told RFE/RL that more money will be raised at a donor conference. He estimates the early warning system could cost up to $30 million.

"Our plans in the immediate future are to convene a donor meeting, probably in March, to find out what are the modalities for financing this system. It is difficult at this stage to say how much it will cost, because the needs of each country are pretty much different. My rough estimate is that it would probably be $10-30 million dollars," Barbiere said.

Barbiere said the next few months should be used to carry out technical missions in each of the regions involved in the project to find out what infrastructure is already in place.

Specialists say an early warning system should be integrated with other global observation initiatives. These include the
creation of the Global Earth Observing System of Systems (GEOSS), a project led by the United States, Japan, South Africa, and the European Union.

GEOSS involves the creation of an early-warning network for monitoring any changes in the oceans and atmosphere that could affect life on Earth.

Representatives from more than 50 nations are due to meet on 16 February in Brussels to approve the plan to establish GEOSS.

UNESCO's Barbiere told RFE/RL that parallel systems should be integrated to become more efficient.

"We believe [the tsunami early warning system] has to be integrated with the other existing global observation systems which are being put in place, in particular the one that will be adopted in Brussels next month. This is important because in a sense, the global observing system is also providing monitoring of the marine environment," Barbiere said.

More details about the plan to create the system could emerge tomorrow, when UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is due to address the conference in Mauritius.

The 2,000 participants, including some 20 heads of state, are expected to issue a final declaration on 14 January.